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Email Marketing By Industry

A complete guide to email marketing for nonprofits

Nonprofits have ambitious missions that usually have little to do with making money. But to achieve their goals, they often must generate financial support by telling their story.

There's no better way to tell your story and connect with supporters than through nonprofit email marketing. Email marketing for nonprofits is the most personal form of outreach, which is why it generates the highest return on investment (ROI) compared with social media, direct mail, or even paid search.  

A solid email marketing strategy is essential for every nonprofit organization, and the goal of this email marketing playbook is to give you the knowledge, skills and tools to get the most out of your campaigns. And we’ll be sharing plenty of nonprofit email marketing tips along the way!

Let’s get started with the most important fundamentals of nonprofit email marketing.

Constant communication with your supporters is the key to long-term success. As a nonprofit organization, you need to tell your story, and then include your partners and potential donors in the narrative. Show them that they are a part of your movement and that they matter. And guess what? Nonprofit email marketing campaigns are the ideal vehicle to make that connection. 

They let you:

  1. Set up a direct communication channel with supporters: This lets you engage with donors and build awareness about everything you’re fighting for.

  2. Send targeted, frequent and personalized campaigns to each subscriber: So that you can send relevant messages to your supporters at just the right moment.

  3. Encourage online donations: In this day and age where millennials (now officially the largest generation) prefer to donate online. If you can send a direct link to their inbox, there’s a good chance that they’ll convert!

2022 nonprofit email benchmarks

Plus, our 2022 industry benchmarks have shown that on average, nonprofit marketing emails get 27.52% open rates and 4.52% click rates, which is higher than the average. They also enjoy lower unsubscribe rates! People want to hear from you, so now is the time to jump on the bandwagon.

Nonprofit email marketing campaigns need a solution that matches their budget while still delivering sophisticated, responsive and powerful newsletters.

Using the right email marketing platform with optimal functionality is key. This is where we’d like to throw our hat into the ring!

Starting with MailerLite’s free plan, you can already make the most of our quick and easy-to-use features, including: 

MailerLite pricing for nonprofit organizations

At MailerLite we care about empowering meaningful projects. Nonprofit organizations receive a 30% discount on MailerLite's paid plans.

To be eligible for the discount, all you have to do is indicate that you’re a nonprofit when completing your profile upon signup and reach out to support before purchasing your plan. It's that simple!

Create a free MailerLite account

Sign up for MailerLite to create and track nonprofit email campaigns for free. When you’re ready to upgrade, organizations like yours will have access to one of the industry's highest nonprofit discounts.

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1. Keep growing your email list

The first step to success is building your subscriber list. It might seem obvious, but the more people your email campaigns reach, the greater the impact they’ll have. Opt-in forms allow your first-time website visitors and social media followers to leave you their email addresses. These forms are most effective when placed in high-visibility areas, where you can share your values and mission. 

You can grow your list with different kinds of opt-in forms, such as:

Embedded forms

Embedded forms can be placed anywhere on your website to give visitors an easy way to sign up for your email newsletters. Signup forms should always include an incentive, even if it’s something as simple as, “Keep up to date on all our latest news!” Here’s an example of an embedded opt-in form on the Invisible Children website.

Embedded form example

Pop-up forms 

When done right, pop-up forms will grab your supporters’ attention, making them the perfect tool for collecting email addresses (see these pop-up examples and types).

Look at how this pop-up from Partners in Health immediately captures attention with a compelling image and a statement of their mission.

Pop-up form example from Partners in Health
Image credit: Partners in Health

Combine your pop-up with a clear CTA like this one and you’ll be well on your way to adding new subscribers to your list (yay)!

Social media integrations

Your followers on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter already want to hear from you, so why not get them on your email list as well? You can include links to landing pages on your profile pages or embed forms on Facebook.

MailerLite offers a Facebook integration that enables you to target ads towards custom Facebook Audiences based on the characteristics of subscribers in your email list. The guide below explores how email marketing and social media work together for good. 

Offline opt-in app

Fundraiser events or meetups can be a great opportunity to collect emails—particularly if your nonprofit has less of an online presence. MailerLite has an email opt-in app for mobile devices (e.g. tablets), making it easy to collect emails and permissions on the go. This way, you can grow your email list wherever your supporters are. The email addresses you collect are then automatically linked to your MailerLite account, so there’s no need to export them. 

Offline opt-in form example

But regardless of whether you collect subscriber information online or offline, just make sure that your forms are GDPR compliant (your email deliverability score will thank you for it). 

👉 Tip

In addition to opt-in forms, check your CRM or donor management platform to see if you have some of the email addresses of your supporters. You can import them to your email list as long as you have permission to email them.

To learn more, check out this guide on building a high-quality email list.

2. Personalize your emails through segmentation

Personalized emails have higher open and click-through rates than non-personalized emails. But keep in mind that personalization goes beyond just adding a subscriber’s name into the subject line—it’s about sending highly targeted content to the right people. 

Your subscribers are different, so the emails you send them should also be different. This is where your new favorite email marketing tool comes in. Email segmentation lets you automatically filter subscribers who share similar traits so that you can deliver more direct messages to them. 

Demographic examples

For example, if some of your supporters are millennials, you may send them a different email compared to what you would send to your older supporters. 

The more your email campaigns match your audience, the better they’ll perform. To properly segment your email list you’ll need data on your subscribers. You can get this from your content management system (CMS), which is the database where you manage all of your website content. You can also find it on your donor management platform, or even from your opt-in forms. 

Segmentation doesn’t have to be complicated, either. You could start by using general segments such as individual donors, corporate sponsors and subscribers who haven’t donated yet. Check out the guide below to learn more!

3. Set up an email marketing automation

Email marketing automations let you set up automatic newsletters that reach your subscribers at just the right moment. Newer supporters need to hear different stories, compared to those who have been with you for years, for example! The beauty of this feature is that it automates the whole process, saving you time to focus on other crucial tasks.

👉 Tip

Don’t send out mass emails to all your supporters. Create a welcome series using autoresponders that helps introduce supporters to your mission and nurture them based on their understanding of your nonprofit organization.

4. Create emails using writing and design best practices

Even if you have great content, just sending the email won’t guarantee that it gets opened, read, or even clicked. This is why knowing a few email design guidelines can help you maximize your impact. 

Put extra thought into your subject line

One of the most crucial parts of your email is your subject line. It should instantly capture your subscribers’ interest, while clearly setting expectations of what’s in the email. 

When deciding on a subject line, you can start by writing out what the email is about and highlighting the main benefits. Next, try these 3 techniques to spice it up! 

1. Personalize it: Add names, segment your subscribers by geographic location, or add other types of personal information that will catch your subscriber's eye. 

Personalized email subject line example

2. Incite curiosity: Everyone loves a bit of mystery. Ask a question or leave something to the imagination.

Mysterious subject line example

3. Add urgency: Make it time-sensitive so that people will be motivated to open it right away.

Urgent subject line example
Here are a few examples of email subject lines from nonprofits:
  • Patagonia - Volunteer your skills for our planet

  • WE - It’s not too late to give

  • Charity Water - This #GivingTuesday, make history with us!

  • UNICEF - Water is opportunity

  • American Red Cross - Give. It’s never been easier.

Once you've written a good subject line, you now need to make sure that the body of your email clearly conveys what you want your readers to know.

We cover subject lines in more detail in this ultimate guide.

Make the email easy to read

Most people scan your email before actually reading it. If they see that it is relevant to them, they’ll go back and invest more time. This is where writing a strong headline comes in. 

The best headlines are easy to understand, and they state exactly what readers will get from reading the email. Don’t try to be too creative or clever. The clearer your headline is, the better. 

Patagonia uses a very prominent headline in this email. It’s clear, attention-grabbing and explains the purpose of the email in very simple terms. They also stick to brand colors that are easy to read, as well as a font size that is easy on the eyes!

Patagonia nonprofit email example
Image credit: Patagonia

Break up the text

No one wants to read dense paragraphs. Break up your emails with lots of white spacing. You can do this by increasing line spacing, adding bullet points and using subheadings.  

In the nonprofit email newsletter below, you can see how the Acacia Creek Retirement Community used photos, headings and different columns to structure their newsletter.

Acacia Creek Retirement Community nonprofit email example
Image credit: Acacia Creek Retirement Community

Make your CTA prominent

Your CTA is the main purpose of your email. It's what lets you convert the attention you've already captured into meaningful action. Your CTA should be large and should also contrast with the rest of your email. It should also be simple to execute (check out this guide on how to create a call-to-action that works).

Look at the prominent CTA in this Christmas email from the Hibbs Lupus Trust. Notice how they made the CTA clear and clickable using the words "Donate today".

Hibbs Lupus Trust nonprofit email example
Image credit: Hibbs Lupus Trust

Use captivating imagery

We learn better with visuals than with words. Adding images to your email can be a powerful way to make them more engaging.

Take a look at this online fundraising email from Charity Water, showing photos with their organization in action—plus an amazing GIF to do some wordplay with the title!

Charity Water nonprofit email template example
Image credit: Charity Water

Not sure how or where to start with your newsletter design? We've got you covered in our guide on how to design emails people will read.

How your email looks definitely matters. Luckily you don't have to be a design guru to create great-looking emails like these. If you use MailerLite, you already have access to tons of professionally-designed email templates that you can use for your fundraising campaigns. Or you can create your own and save them in your personal gallery.  

To see more of our favorite newsletter examples, you can take a look at our nonprofit newsletter examples gallery, where you’ll find lots of stunning campaigns to draw inspiration from. It’s like visiting the Louvre... except it’s for email campaigns!

5. Keep improving by analyzing past campaigns

You can't improve what you don't measure. Imagine your email campaign as a funnel made up of different stages. For a standard campaign, your funnel email metrics would consist of:

  • Opt-in rate: The percentage of people who visit your website and subscribe to your newsletter

  • Deliverability: The chances of your email reaching the inbox (read this article on best practices to improve email deliverability)

  • Open rate: The percentage of subscribers who open your email (check out this article on Apple Mail Privacy Protection to see how this metric is changing)

  • Click-through rate: The percentage of subscribers who click a link in your email

Email marketing funnel graphic

Once you start analyzing your campaign data you can pinpoint the parts of the subscriber journey that need help by using a marketing funnel. Start recording your metrics so you can determine your benchmarks. For nonprofits, you can use the industry benchmarks that we mentioned earlier.

👉 Tip

Tip: Enable UTM tags when sending to track campaign metrics in Google Analytics.

6. Use A/B testing to get your campaigns just right

Image or no image? This subject line, or that subject line? CTA positioned over here, or over there? 

It’s hard to know exactly how your supporters will respond to different elements of your newsletter. The options are endless and sometimes overwhelming. But the good news is that you can take out some of the guesswork with email A/B testing.

If you want to test different versions of your nonprofit newsletter to see which one performs best, then A/B testing is for you. An A/B test will send two variants of your nonprofit email campaign to two subscriber segments at the same time.

It will then let you know which group responded with the highest open or click rates, thereby allowing you to identify a ‘winner’ between your two newsletter versions. 

Since the Apple Mail Privacy Protection feature was released, we recommend A/B testing by click rates rather than open rates. 

If you’d like to learn more about this, check out our ultimate guide on email marketing A/B testing.

7. Prime your email cadence

If you’ve ever wondered how many emails you should be sending per week, or per month, then you need to set up an email cadence. MailerLite data shows that the median number of days between emails sent by nonprofit organizations is 11.47 days. 

We’ve also tapped into our 2021 data to find the best time to send your email (hint—10AM is a good sending hour). While you can use these studies as a rough guide for your digital marketing, it’s also important to do your own testing and get to know your supporters to find your optimal sending frequency.

8. Keep your list clean

No matter how hard you work on fine-tuning your email marketing strategy, it’s inevitable that some of the email addresses on your email list will be inactive.

Whether they’re unengaged subscribers or invalid email addresses, if you’re sending emails that bounce or never get opened, it can harm your deliverability.

Keeping your email list clean reduces costs (avoid paying for larger plans you don’t need) and helps you maintain a solid sender reputation. To clean up your email list, send out a quick re-engagement campaign before deleting those inactive subscribers.

👉 Tip

Use an email list verification tool like MailerCheck to automatically scrub your email list of harmful invalid email addresses or spamtraps.

9. Use a transactional email tool

Once a subscriber becomes a donor, you’ll need a transactional email service to send non-marketing emails. Transactional emails are notification emails triggered by the recipient, such as a donation confirmation or a tax document request. 70% of nonprofits use transactional emails to send automated donation receipts.

Transactional emails don’t require marketing permissions to send and people expect to receive them immediately, so you need a reliable service to handle them.

We compiled a list of the 10 best SMTP services for transactional email for people who want to successfully deliver email notifications at scale:

Building relationships via email campaigns is sort of like building relationships in real life. You have to get the balance right and know when it’s time to listen, and when it’s time to share. It’s a fine art! You want to keep your subscribers engaged with relevant content, but you also want them to become active participants in the conversation and consider donating.

So how do you start writing about things that will interest your donors and supporters? We look at this in more detail with our guide on crafting email content that people will care about.

You can nurture your relationship with your email subscribers through a variety of different newsletter types (and we’ve thrown in some nonprofit newsletter examples for inspiration)!

1. Set up automated welcome emails to new supporters

The first step in relationship-building is to say hello! By using email automation to set up a welcome email series, you can orientate your supporters, stay fresh in the mind, and establish your communication channel (check out these best welcome email examples for inspiration)!

The video GIF in this welcome email from the WWF instantly captures their vision, and it adds a nice interactive element to the email (here’s how to embed a video in your newsletters).

WWF nonprofit welcome email GIF example
Image credit: WWF

2. Show appreciation to donors by sending thank you emails

Sometimes, all you have to do is show some appreciation. Let your email subscribers know how much their continued support means to your nonprofit organization. 

In this nonprofit newsletter example, Paterson Habitat for Humanity thanks its supporters for their fundraising efforts. They also take the opportunity to gently nudge those who might have missed the campaign and still want to give.

Paterson Habitat for Humanity nonprofit email newsletter example - MailerLite
Image credit: Paterson Habitat for Humanity

3. Share what you're doing in blog posts and articles

People love to see how their support has helped your organization. They want to know that their fundraising efforts have made a difference and see your organization in action! 

If you have a nonprofit blog (and you probably should), send out email newsletters sharing your latest articles. You could even set up an RSS campaign so that your subscribers are updated automatically when you upload a new blog article. 

Notice how Charity Water shares a teaser of their article in their email, and then adds an enticing call to action (CTA) button for people to keep reading.

Charity Water nonprofit email newsletter example
Image credit: Charity Water

4. Share case studies and success stories

Sometimes, your supporters might forget that they’re helping real human beings! Remind them how their contributions are making a difference by sharing stories that show how much good they’ve done. This email newsletter from Freely in Hope shares one of their alumni releasing her first single on Spotify.

Freely in Hope nonprofit email example
Image credit: Freely in Hope

5. Share your milestones and goals

Make it easy for your supporters to care about your work by sharing your goals and milestones with them. Show them that your nonprofit organization is made up of real people working together towards a shared mission. This email shows a progress bar on how much money has been raised for a specific campaign, motivating subscribers to help them hit their target.

Fundraising milestone progress nonprofit newsletter example

6. Promote upcoming events

Give your subscribers a sneak peek at your calendar! Whether you’ve organized a fundraiser, an online conference, or a volunteering trip, it’s a good idea to let your supporters know in advance. In this nonprofit newsletter example, the Boy Scouts of America promote their upcoming Q&A webinar about the Scouts BSA program.

Boyscouts of America email nonprofit newsletter guide - MailerLite
Image credit: Boyscouts of America

7. Release your annual report

Annual reports build trust in your nonprofit organization, as supporters can see exactly how their donations are being used. This can be a deciding factor for potential donors.

A good rule of thumb is to make your annual report as visually appealing and easy to read as possible. Lots of images and infographics will make the data more accessible to donors. 

In this nonprofit newsletter example, UNICEF briefly lists some of its achievements over the past years, along with a CTA to read the report in more detail.

UNICEF annual report nonprofit newsletter example
Image credit: UNICEF

8. Send out a donation appeal

Once you’ve built trust with your subscribers, you’re ready to send out a donation appeal. After all, donations are the lifeblood of a nonprofit organization.

Asking for money can be uncomfortable, but there a few simple things you can do in your donation appeal email that empowers subscribers to take action without being pushy:

  • Talk directly to the reader: Use personal pronouns like “you” instead of “people”. For example, “you can make a difference” rather than “everyday people can make a difference”

  • Be specific: Let subscribers know exactly what you’re asking for and why. There’s no room to beat around the bush. You’re asking for money, so tell subscribers what impact their money will have and where

  • Convey a sense of urgency: When possible, add a deadline to your email campaign so subscribers are compelled to take action immediately

The Tripadvisor Foundation in partnership with Word Central Kitchen sent out a clear, informative donation appeal to support Ukrainian relief efforts. They convey urgency in a very simple and non-threatening way by adding that “every minute counts”.

A complete guide to email marketing for nonprofits
Image credit: Tripadvisor Foundation

As a nonprofit, email marketing can have a tremendous impact on your organization's growth and fundraising activities. With email, you can more effectively reach your supporters and build strong, long-lasting relationships with them.

Remember that growing your email list is the first step, but just as important is strengthening the relationship between you and your subscribers with personalized email content. Don't forget to analyze your campaigns so you can remove the bottlenecks holding your marketing efforts back.

Does your nonprofit organization currently send email newsletters? If not, we hope this guide motivates you to get started!

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